Nurses, like doctors, can be found liable for improperly treating a patient.
Yes, a nurse can be sued for medical malpractice if it can be proven that the healthcare provider failed to competently perform his or her medical duties and that failure resulted in harm to the patient.
Between 1997 and 2007 over $87.5 million was paid for malpractice claims involving nursing professionals according to a CNA HealthPro 10-year study conducted by the CNA Insurance Companies in conjunction with the Nurses Service Organization (NSO).
Nursing malpractice occurs when a nurse does not fulfill duties in a way that a normally competent nurse in the same situation would and that negligence injures the patient. This means that not every mistake that happens rises to the level of negligence.
Nursing malpractice can happen in a variety of situations. According to a journal article in the American Journal of Nursing (AJN), accessible via the nursingcenter.com website, there are six major categories of negligence that result in malpractice lawsuits.
- Failure to assess and monitor
Changes in the health status of a patient can happen slowly or suddenly and nurses are responsible for observing a patient’s ongoing progress. The timeliness and accuracy in interpreting a patient’s signs and symptoms and reporting any health status changes to a physician can often mean the difference between life and death. Nurses must also complete a shift assessment and implement a plan of care.
- Failure to communicate
A nurse is under a duty to monitor a patient’s condition. If the nurse notices something of concern, or fails to notice something he or she is expected to see, then that the nurse may be liable for malpractice if he or she does not notify the attending doctor as soon as possible. This includes persistence in notifying the physician of the change, and accuracy in communicating the nature and degree of the change. Nurses must also listen to a patient’s complaints and act on them, communicate effectively with a patient, provide all relevant discharge information to the patient, and seek higher medical authorization for a treatment.
- Failure to use equipment responsibly.
A nurse will be liable for malpractice if he or she injures a patient with a piece of medical equipment. Nurses must know how to place equipment properly during treatment, as well as the safety features, capabilities, hazards, and limitations of any equipment used. Nurses must follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for operating equipment, as well as check equipment for safety before it is used.
- Failure to follow standards of care.
Standards such as hospital policies have evolved to protect consumers. These standards of care are derived from sources such as state boards of nursing, professional nursing associations, hospital policies and procedures, and the guidelines of federal organizations. A nurse can fail in this standard if her or she performs a complete admission assessment, fails to adhere to standardized protocols or institutional policies and procedures (for example, using an improper injection site), or fails to follow a physician’s verbal or written orders. If there is more than one recognized method of care, a nurse will not be held negligent if an approved method was chosen even if that method later turns out to be the wrong choice.
- Failure to document.
Documentation is a primary way to communicate patient information among providers. This means that a patient’s medical record must accurately reflect the nursing process, a patient’s progress and response to treatment, a patient’s injuries, pertinent nursing assessment information, a physician’s medical orders, action plans and any information on telephone conversations with physicians.
- Failure to act as a patient advocate.
Failure to act as patient advocate frequently refers to nurses challenging physician orders that are believed could harm the patient. Physician challenges may involve medications, respiratory management, discharge orders, incomplete or illegible medical orders, and other aspects of patient care. Requests for a patient to be moved to a different unit or even a different facility to receive optimal care also fall in this category.
One common cause of medical error that deserves specific mention is the improper administration of medication. Nurses often administer medication according to the doctor’s orders. If the nurse does not follow the orders and the patient is injured, the nurse will be liable for malpractice. The nurse may also be liable for negligently following otherwise proper orders, like injecting the wrong patient. According to the 2006 report “Preventing Medication Errors” from the Institute of Medicine, medication errors injure 1.5 million Americans each year
Because medical malpractice law is highly regulated by a complex body of rules that vary from state to state, advice or representation from a lawyer is highly recommended.